Mycobacterium avium and Mycobacterium intracellulare are closely related organisms and comprise the Mycobacterium avium complex. These organisms share many common characteristics, including the ability to cause life-threatening respiratory infections in people with underlying lung pathology or immunological defects and occasionally in those with no known predisposing conditions. However, the ability to invade the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract and cause disseminated disease in AIDS patients has not been epidemiologically linked to M. intracellulare and appears to be unique to M. avium. We compared the abilities of M. avium and M. intracellulare to tolerate the acidic conditions of the stomach, to resist the membrane-disrupting activity of cationic peptides, and to invade intestinal epithelial cells in vitro and in vivo. We observed that M. avium and M. intracellulare were both tolerant to the acidic conditions encountered in the stomach and resistant to cationic peptides. However, when strains of M. avium and M. intracellulare were examined for their ability to enter cultured human intestinal cells or mouse intestinal mucosa, we observed that M. avium could invade more efficiently than M. intracellulare. To elucidate the basis of this pathogenic difference and identify genes involved in the invasion of the intestinal mucosa, we performed chromosomal DNA subtractive hybridization using M. avium and M. intracellulare chromosomal DNAs. In all, 21 genes that were present in M. avium but absent in M. intracellulare were identified, including some that may be associated with the ability of M. avium to invade the intestinal mucosa.